Miriam Lord: Paschal just needed a chorister’s ruff to complete choirboy image

Head count of five in Dáil bar before the speech proves budget is no longer box office

Minister for Finance & Public Expenditure and Reform Paschal Donohoe delivers the budget for 2019.

 

The Cabinet meeting was over. There was less than an hour to go to Budget 2019.

Everything was ready.

The excitement in Leinster House was close to boredom point.

No sign of any last minute hitches.

All that remained was for Paschal Donohoe to toddle across to the Dáil chamber and deliver his budget statement to the nation.

Not long now.

Suddenly, a shouted command echoed around the marbled halls of Government Buildings.

“STAY CALM AND SIT DOWN IF YOU CAN!”

What was going on?

The notice inside said the lift could take eight passengers, but that figure didn’t factor in a ton of budget briefing documents 

Only minutes earlier, the country’s most senior civil servant was heard calling for the army.

Had angry restaurateurs stormed the place and unleashed the maître d’s? The hospitality industry people were known to be disgusted with the prospect of a Vat increase.

Maybe the grannies had gone rogue and were hunting down Winston Churchtown for promising them everything and delivering precious little.

Or had Paschal discovered a government-ending mistake in the numbers and spooked a stampede of distraught ministers to the exit doors?

None of the above.

OPW rescue

The shout came from a man from the OPW who was attempting to rescue the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and two Cabinet members from the lift. They had been stuck in it for nearly ten minutes at this stage.

Six people had taken it down from the Cabinet room to the ministerial corridor. The notice inside said it could take eight passengers, but that figure didn’t factor in the ton of budget briefing documents they were carrying with them.

Podcast: Budget 2019

Along with Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney were Heather Humphreys and Regina Doherty, along with two officials, one of them from Shane Ross’s office. Hurried calls were made on mobile phones.

Budget day is one of the biggest set-pieces of the political year. They didn’t need this stressful start to it.

Martin Fraser, Secretary General at the Department of the Taoiseach and the government’s Mr Fix-it, got the first call. This will not be the first time he’s had to deal with ministers trapped in one of the lifts in the Government Buildings/Leinster House complex.

'I acknowledge that where we find ourselves today is not where we want to be.' He got no argument from anyone on that

It is not a rare occurrence. And when it happens, the army is usually dispatched to carry out a rescue when there is no sign of normal service resuming. A permanent Defence Forces detail is stationed on the campus.

But the soldiers weren’t needed. A member of the maintenance team managed to prise open the doors on another floor and he shouted to the overheating passengers: “Stay calm and sit down if you can!” We understand none of the six decided to sit on the floor of the lift, which is compact.

The adventure didn’t end once things got going again. The lift developed a mind of its own and didn’t take the politicians to their destination. “It let us out in the basement of somewhere where none of us had ever been before,” confided one of the freed politicians.

None the worse for their ordeal, they made it to the chamber in time for the big speech. It went on so long Paschal’s audience were dreaming about being trapped in a lift. He spoke for an hour and a quarter, despite suffering all week with a croaky throat and being dosed up to the eyeballs with strong lozenges from Boots.

“I acknowledge that where we find ourselves today is not where we want to be,” the Minister declared.

He got no argument from anyone on that. The weather was beautiful outside and as the contents of his budget had been so comprehensively leaked there wasn’t much reason to be there in the first place.

Did their duty

The budget was once box office. This year, the public gallery was sparsely attended and a quick look inside the Dáil bar before the off yielded a head count of five.

The TDs did their duty and turned up in force. It was almost a full house, with most of the missing ensconced in front of microphones in various TV and radio studios. Even Shane Ross graced the chamber with his presence.

Peter Fitzpatrick, who resigned from the Fine Gael parliamentary party last week, was plonked between John Halligan of the Independent Alliance and Labour’s Jan O’Sullivan. The TD for Louth seemed to be casting wistful glances over towards his former colleagues, but he told us afterwards that he had felt “very comfortable” in his new berth.

In case people didn’t twig it, Budget 2019 is a “caring” budget.

The Opposition didn’t care much for it.

Aside from the usual civil service gibberish (the acronyms were of very high quality), Paschal introduced some interesting new measures.

The minister had his script in a black leather folder. He held the folder high in both hands as he read from it

We are intrigued by “the introduction of equality and gender budgeting”. And is a “caring budget” the same thing as a “caring bank”?

The film industry is getting “a new, time-limited, regional uplift” while Paschal intends “to provide for a three-year extension of the Young Trained Farmer stamp duty relief.” Who knew you had to pay stamp duty on young farmers?

The Green Party was thoroughly disgusted by the Government’s weak response to the climate change question. The budget “builds on new commitments made in the National Development Plan, which represents a step change in funding commitments for climate action”, waffled the minister, adding that exchequer funds will be devoted to addressing climate change leading to “a significant reduction in carbon emissions over the period to 2030”.

Eamon Ryan glared at him. “No. It. Won’t,” he spat. “Shame on you. Shame on you.”

His words are not to be confused with the words of Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty who castigated the Government’s measures aimed at easing the housing crisis.

“Shame on youse,” shouted Pearse. “Shame on youse.”

Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe presents Budget 2019 outside Government Buildings. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times
Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe presents Budget 2019 outside Government Buildings. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill/The Irish Times

‘Where’s the granny?’

Meanwhile, who doesn’t welcome the BEEP? This is the “Beef Environmental Efficiency Pilot to further improve the carbon efficiency of beef production”. A companion plan to FART, one imagines, involving the mass distribution of champagne corks to farmers to provide a stop-gap solution to bovine emissions.

Here’s the standout line of the speech: “The government will use part of the surplus in the NTF to establish a multi-annual, ring-fenced Human Capital Initiative of €300 million over the period 2020 to 2024, which includes the Brexit period.”

Who thinks up this stuff?

The minister had his script in a black leather folder. He held the folder high in both hands as he read from it. All he needed was a white chorister’s ruff to complete the proper choirboy image.

Mattie McGrath had one thing on his mind: Shane Ross’s proposed “granny flat grant”, an Independent Alliance pre-budget wheeze which didn’t materialise in the speech. Whenever Donohoe sounded pleased with himself, Mattie shouted: “Where’s the granny?” “What happened to the grannies?”

Fianna Fáil’s Barry Cowen painted a distressing image when he said Ross was “trying to appeal to grannies like a political Dickie Rock”.

Meanwhile, it seems the proposal to give older people a grant to convert their homes into two units depends on a pilot scheme involving “a single granny in Clondalkin” sniggered Eamon Ryan. “That’s a win for the Independent Alliance.”

The Alliance gave a press conference to trumpet all the great things they can claim credit for in the budget. (Which has to be very little, as Fianna Fáil is claiming the lion’s share.)

Shane “Spit on me, Winston!” Ross categorically refused to comment on Cowen’s Dickie Rock comparison, but unrepentant warbler Finian McGrath, standing next to him, came to the rescue.

Like Dickie Rock, “he’s got a good guitarist on his side”.